Potassium iodide is a useful medication. It is also poorly understood, and has functioned as a “fear pill” in the current climate of radiation worries. As always, with this column, I am interested in how the news media distorts the purpose of a useful medication.
Potassium iodide is useful in certain conditions of hypothyroidism, to provide alternative iodine sources or stimulate the gland. It also has a short-term use to flood the thyroid gland with a “safe” form of iodine, thereby protecting it from incoming radiation. Following Chernobyl, in 1986, it was given to 17 million people in Poland, dramatically decreasing the incidence of thyroid cancer from radiation.
But when used incorrectly, it can also stimulate a diseased thyroid gland to make too much hormone, or more commonly, can signal a normal thyroid gland to shut down production and make LESS thyroid hormone, resulting in hypothyroidism.
In the wake of the nuclear reactor catastrophe in Japan, the Japanese government was handing out potassium iodide pills to those in the region, which was legitimate. But the run on pharmacies based on fear of a radiation cloud crossing the seas and putting us all at risk here in the US, was not legitimate. The actual chances of enough radiation containing radioactive iodine drifting over here to put us all at risk of getting thyroid cancer was very close to zero.
The media has once again created a climate of fear that easily leads to misunderstanding and potential misuse of an important medication.
Marc Siegel, MD, is an internist and professor of medicine at New York University and the author of False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear